This morning, at 1:17 AM, the power failed at my house. I’m a geek, so a power failure at my house might look different than it does at yours. Emergency lighting automatically switched on. The alarm system notified the central monitoring station in Ojai, which sent a text message to my phone. The soft but incessant beeping of UPS systems upstairs and down reminded me that nonessential systems had been shut down while Internet and telephone had been switched over to battery backup. Within 2 minutes, I knew that PG&E had detected the failure at 37 of their monitoring points, they did not know the cause or have a correction time, and that 5,000+ customers were affected.
The last time we had a power failure was about four years ago, and this one lasted about 15-minutes. That gives us a reliability of about 99.99998%. Pretty good, as far as systems go, but not what Americans expect. They think of electricity like gravity; always there 100% of the time.
In reality, this level of reliability is amazing when you consider the fact that your house sits at the end of a long chain electrical components, some of them redundant (like the power plants at Hetch Hetchy and Diablo Canyon) some of them not (like the transformer on the pole outside your house) which stretches over thousands of miles. Although power outages in this part of the world are infrequent, they are a regular fact of life on many parts of the planet. And they are about to get more frequent here as well.
As we switch over to smart grid technologies in the attempt to improve grid efficiency and integrate green technologies like solar, wind, wave and small cogeneration facilities, we are going to have a lot more of these little inconveniences and perhaps a disaster or two.
Smart technologies, while more efficient than traditional approaches, are also less robust. They lead to the kinds of problems we are now seeing on the Toyota Prius, where in the quest for the power efficiencies of regenerative braking, some owners are experiencing brake failures. These systems fail suddenly and in unusual ways, like digital television which gives you a perfect picture until it suddenly goes away completely rather than degrading slowly into a snowstorm of static. (By the way, the current generation of kids, raised exclusively on digital media, doesn’t even know what static is.)
As we move into this brave new green world, consumers are going to have to take more responsibility for their infrastructure if they don’t want to be inconvenienced. We are ever more reliant on electricity and communications to make our day-to-day lives possible, which means that in addition to stockpiling supplies of water and food, you are going to need to start thinking about emergency supplies of electricity.
Fortunately, the same technologies that threaten our piece of mind are there to save it. New innovations like home hydrogen fuel cells, whole-house battery backup systems (developed for solar applications) and even small but mighty traditional generators with automatic transfer panels can, for the first time in history, put the reliability of your electric systems in your own hands and can actually make you look forward to the next power outage.